Buffalo's season ended by the slimmest of margins -- a seventh-game loss against the Philadelphia Flyers
in the first round of the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
A bounce this way or that way easily could have seen the Sabres advance past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
And while that was a bitter pill to swallow in western New York, there is plenty of reason to believe that the second-round drought could end this season.
First, the Sabres were one of the League's best teams in the second half of last season. In a stunning march to the postseason, Buffalo went 14-4-3 in the season's final 40 days, taking 31 of a possible 42 points.
But more importantly, this edition of the Sabres is a far better team -- at least on paper.
Terry Pegula took over as owner late last season and has infused the organization with confidence and cash.
The Sabres spent big in the free-agent market, adding where they believe was necessary to correct the flaws that spelled the difference in the first-round loss to Philadelphia.
The belief was they needed a game-breaking forward, so they broke the bank to land Ville Leino
, who was one of the best players for Philadelphia In the series against Buffalo. There also was a need for a shut-down defenseman, so Christian Ehrhoff
was brought in as a free agent and Robyn Regehr
was acquired in a trade.
Those moves have made the Sabres one of the favorites in the East, a situation the players say they are ready to embrace.
IN: Christian Ehrhoff
, D (trade, Islanders); Ales Kotalik
, RW (trade, Flames); Ville Leino
, LW (free agent, Flyers); Robyn Regehr
, D (trade, Flames)
OUT: Chris Butler
, D (trade, Flames); Paul Byron
, C (trade, Flames); Tim Connolly
, C (free agent, Maple Leafs); Mike Grier
, RW (free agent); Patrick Lalime
, G (retired); Mark Mancari
, RW (free agent, Canucks); Rob Niedermayer
, C (free agent, Lugano, Switzerland)
"There are a lot of expectations around the city, a lot of buzz, and the guys are feeding off that," center Derek Roy
told reporters on the first day of camp. "Terry (Pegula) has treated guys with a lot of respect and he's putting the statement down that he wants to win the Stanley Cup."
Leino is the new centerpiece of Buffalo's offense and will be at the center of it all -- instead of on the wing.
After playing on the wing during his time with the Flyers, the Sabres signed Leino to a six-year deal with the intention of making him one of their top two centers. It is a role for which Leino is excited. He often played center during his time in Finland before joining the NHL and believes it is the position for which he is best suited.
Buffalo will be happy just to not have to face him in the playoffs again. Leino was a Sabres killer last year, with each of his three postseason goals coming in wins against Buffalo. In the regular season, he had 19 goals and 53 points and in the 2010 playoffs he set an NHL rookie record with 14 assists.
SABRES 30 IN 15 RELATED STORIES
Roy will battle Leino for the No. 1 center job. Roy was leading the team in scoring 35 games into the season when he tore a quad muscle -- an injury that sidelined him until Game 7 of the first round of the playoffs. Roy had averaged 73 points per season during the previous three seasons.
and Jochen Hecht
, once again trying to stay healthy, give the club some depth in the middle.
There now is depth on the wings as well, giving Buffalo a solid top six.
is an ideal first-line left wing, able to score regularly when he is on top of his game. Tyler Ennis
is developing nicely and had 20 goals last season. On the right side, Drew Stafford
was a revelation with his 31-goal campaign. Jason Pominville
had 52 points, the same total as Stafford.
There also is depth on the bottom two lines as Patrick Kaleta
, Brad Boyes
, Nathan Gerbe
, Cody McCormick
, Matt Ellis
and Luke Adam
all are in the mix. Plus, Buffalo has a wild card in the equation as Ales Kotalik
-- so good for Buffalo in the past -- returned as part of the trade that landed brought Regehr over from Calgary.
There is no question Buffalo's defense is better this season.
The addition of Ehrhoff alone would have accomplished that. All he did last season was play top-four minutes on a team that won the Presidents' Trophy and came within one game of winning the Stanley Cup.
Defense - BUF
GOALS: 2 | ASST: 15 | PTS: 17
SOG: 72 | +/-: 2
But the club also now has Regehr, a solid, stay-at-home player that will add some stability in Buffalo's zone.
And let's not forget Tyler Myers
, who was inked to a new seven-year deal just before training camp. The 2010 Calder Trophy winner struggled early in the 2010-11 season, but came on like gangbusters to fuel Buffalo's second-half run and was the team's best defenseman in the playoffs.
Depth may be an issue here, but there are some intriguing possibilities to round out the top six. Reliable vet Jordan Leopold
is on hand and is joined by youngsters Andrej Sekera
, Mike Weber
and Marc-Andre Gragnani
, who didn't see much action last season (only nine regular-season games), but was a star in the postseason (7 points in 7 games).
Despite all the changes, this still is a team built around its goalie, Ryan Miller
Miller, 31, has been the team's clear-cut No. 1 for each of the past five seasons. However, there is no denying his numbers slipped a bit last season -- especially in relation to what was a stellar 2009-10 season.
His 34 wins were seven fewer the previous season, and his 2.59 goals-against average and .916 save percentage were his worst numbers in three seasons. Not only that, but that GAA was good for No. 23 among the League's goalies.
He expects to be better this season and knows the team's additions only will help in that regard, especially the two defensemen that were added to the mix.
"I like their style, I like the edge they play with," Miller said of Ehrhoff and Regehr. "Ehrhoff's another guy that can skate well. I'm excited for Regehr. Great guy off the ice, but on the ice, I think most people agree he's not such a nice guy. I like that element in a defenseman. I think that it's a good attitude to set up our (defense) corps with. Every game is going to be a grind and a battle. The other team is going to know they have to go through guys with that attitude."
remains Miller's backup and has proven he can carry the load when Miller is unavailable. The 23-year-old went 9-2-2 in 14 games last season, helping Buffalo salvage its season at a point where it all could have gone off the rails. He has earned the trust of coach Lindy Ruff
and his teammates, and could see as many as 20 games this season.